A Volunteer's Story

Massanutten Mountain Trails 100
May 8-9, 2004

by Mills Kelly

My stint as a MMT pacer and aid station volunteer began back in December when my cousin Pat asked me to be his pacer in a 100-mile mountain trail run. 100 miles?! I knew he'd gotten into ultra-marathons in the past few years, but 100 miles? On Massanutten Mountain? I've hiked many of those trails and so I know what they are anything but smooth and easy. Despite my misgivings that Pat has cracked (he is 53 after all), I agree to run the last 15 miles or so with him. Since I've never run more than a 10k, this meant training and soon.

Now, I'm no weenie. I have six triathlons under my belt and swim with a tough master's swim club. But the prospect of having to run 15 miles on mountain trails was daunting…especially once my training began and my left knee started acting up.

After many months of on-again, off-again training, I told Pat I couldn't possibly do the 15 miles at the end of the run. This turned out to be okay with him, because he was beginning to have doubts about being able to run the full 100. So, we agreed that I'd run the Byrd Knob loop with him (I thought I was agreeing to run 3.9 miles--ha!) and would be his trail crew for the rest of the race.

Just before the race, Anstr Davidson contacted me to see if I could also work the Veach Gap aid station and so, despite the fact that this meant I wouldn't be able to sleep in on Saturday morning, I agreed. Now I was going to be a volunteer, a pacer, and a crew. Here's what happened:

Thursday night: I've never done this before. What should I pack? I'm going to be up all night, so I better get a reclining lawn chair. And my pillow. If I'm going to snooze in a lawn chair, I should at least have my pillow. The website says it's rained every year, so I need a tarp and bungees--never go into any woodland experience without enough bungees…and bug dope. Lots of bug dope.

Friday afternoon: Turning off Route 340, I drive and drive and drive--where the hell is the Ranch? Losing my nerve, I pull over and consult the official map again. Ah. Not to scale. Very not to scale. Is this a bad omen for the rest of the directions they've provided the crews?

Once I make it to the Ranch, I go upstairs and barge into the pre-race meeting. At first I think these people all know each other, then I realize that it's because they all have only one or two degrees of separation from one another and a common secret language--"Badwater", "Hard Rock" and various shoe names and numbers. They are all so excited that they don't even notice that the spaghetti dinner tastes just like Chef Boyardee.

My cousin--"Mr. Organization"--and I run out to his car just before the thunderstorm breaks over us and frantically toss various items from his car to mine--water bottles, energy powders, extra shoes, some kind of carbo-goo, rolls of toilet paper. Too bad we forget the rain gear (more on this oversight later). Why are we making up drop bags in the parking lot as the rain began crashing down on us in sheets? Bad omen number two?

Saturday morning: At 5:00 a.m. sharp, my alarm clock rages, dragging me out of bed. After a quick shower, shave and breakfast, I fill my thermos with coffee and hit the road for Veach Gap. Since it is only 35 minutes from my parents' vacation cabin to the aid station, I have plenty of time. Of course, plenty of time is predicated on actually being able to find the aid station. I manage to drive past the turn off to the parking lot twice before passing another carload of volunteers who actually know where it is. I follow them and arrive at 6:30 sharp, bringing the crucial third card table. It's a good thing I show up when I do, because the first runners begin drifting in a few minutes later.

MMT aid stations are much more fun than the triathlon stations I've visited over the years. Not only are there more options on the buffet, but the music is much better. About 30 minutes into the real work, I start to see the first blood--a knee here, an oozing elbow there. No one seems concerned about it. Hmmm.

By 7:30 we're all done. 134 of 135 runners have passed through, one apparently getting lost almost immediately. By 8:00 we're packed up and it's time for me to switch from volunteer to crew. Since I have a couple of hours before Pat is going to show up at Habron Gap, I decide a brief stop at the Burger King in Luray is indicated. After all, filling all those water bottles has been hard work. I deserve a break.

Refreshed after a hot cup of coffee and some greasy breakfast food, I arrive at Habron Gap around 9:30. Boy, are the volunteers there glad to see me! Why? Because I've brought two large bags of PBJ sandwiches left over from our station, not to mention sliced melon and strawberries. Their buffet improves instantly and they can stop making more PBJs in the back of their SUV.

Since there are only a couple of people working the station and I'd really gotten good at filling water bottles, I pitch right in for an hour until Pat arrives. I also get to know his friend Meg, whose husband Tim is about an hour ahead of Pat on the course. She very nicely hangs around to watch Pat come in and keep me company. By the end of the race Meg and I know more about one another than I know about many of my closer friends. That's what you do while waiting in an aid station--you talk.

Pat shows up in serious need of different shoes. His toes are starting to hurt on the downhill segments, and since about half the race is downhill, this is a problem. Meg and I outfit him with new socks, new shoes and a new attitude and off he goes. After all, he's only run 24.7 miles at this point. No complaining allowed! Did I mention that none of the runners seemed even a little tired yet?

By 10:30 I'm on my way to Camp Roosevelt. I don't need any directions, because I've been there before with my boys. Meg and I are both looking forward to the campground's bathrooms. Not! To our dismay there are no facilities, except nature's own. On the way to Camp Roosevelt the brake fluid light on the dashboard of my 16 year-old Saab lights up. Very bad omen. I'll ask around for some tape to put over it so I won't have to worry about it on those mountain roads.

Camp Roosevelt is also lunchtime for us volunteers and crew who had been working hard all morning. In solidarity with Pat, I eat a couple of PBJs I've packed for myself the night before and cage a couple of cookies from the aid station buffet. The runners drifting in are at 34.2 miles and still didn't look tired--although one woman is begging for Imodium. Since I was eating when she arrived, I move to the far side of the picnic area. No sense taking chances. The main thing they all want was for someone to pick the Inchworms off of them. The crews look like a troop of baboons picking at one another's fleas.

Saturday Afternoon: When Pat arrives, he was feeling good--but there was a small problem. It turns out that he's forgotten to mention that his rain gear is in his car back in Front Royal, and is there any way I could drive back to get it? Well, of course I could. Never mind that I am about as far from his car as I could be and still be on the course, or that the round trip will take almost two hours. What are trail crews for if not the hard jobs like this one? Coming down the very steep road from Edinburg Gap, that bright red brake fluid light really starts to nag at me. I consider prayer, but settle for resolutely avoiding looking at it. Along the way to Front Royal and back I re-familiarize myself with the Nashville Top-40 (my car's tape deck died long ago).

At 4:00 I arrive at last at the Visitor's Center. The fastest runners have long since come through and Meg's husband Tim shows up shortly after I do. At some point during the morning I've had a peek at the elevation map for the Byrd Knob loop that I promised to run and start hoping that Pat will show up too early for me to run this segment with him as a pacer. All those miles uphill suddenly seem less appetizing than they once did. Meg has been to Taco Bell. Argh! I eat a couple more PBJs and put on my running clothes, hiding behind a large tree just above the station.

While I wait, I spend some time helping a couple of runners with their feet. During the morning I'd begun to get the ultra marathon bug. After all, these people all seem to be having a great time together and none of them seems particularly bad off--that is, until I see what the race is doing to their feet. One guy whose feet I help to duct tape has soles that look a little like cottage cheese with catsup on it. His feet convince me that ultra marathons are not in my future after all. And who decided that duct tape was the solution to so many foot problems? Haven't these people ever seen athletic tape?

Pat shows just before 6:00 so I'm doomed to run Byrd Knob. His toes are really starting to hurt and he's now convinced he can't possibly make the full 100. But Meg helps him tape up his big toes--both of which are well on their way to losing their nails--and we get a full meal into him. By the time he and I leave the station, he's pumped again and talking about finishing.

The Byrd Knob run turns out to be a bit more than 3.9 miles. It's 3.9 miles to the aid station up on top! Trail running--my very first encounter with it--turns out to be a lot of fun, much more fun than road running ever was. You don't see Ladyslippers, wild irises, or mammoth anthills when you run through your subdivision. After much huffing and puffing, we finally reach the aid station just at dusk. I decide I better eat something, so in solidarity with the real runners, I wolf down a handful of M&Ms.

Just as we reach the fork in the trail and start back down the steep slope, it's time to don our headlamps. Running--okay, brisk walking--with headlamps on is kind of cool. I do wish mine was a bit brighter though.

We make good progress until Pat's phone rings--it turns out the top of Byrd Knob has cell service and his daughter is calling to see where he is on the run. He chats amiably with her for a couple of minutes, hangs up, and then takes another call from one his daughter's friends. There is something a little surreal about being 50 miles into a mountain trail run, in the total darkness, and taking calls from teenagers in Illinois.

Saturday night: At the turn off for 211, I leave Pat with an Australian runner and jog back up the Wildflower Trail to my car, changing in the parking lot this time--hey, it's completely dark, so no one can see me naked. Then I head down the mountain where Meg is waiting once again to see how we're doing.

Having just completed the longest run of my life, I'm pumped. But when Pat shows up about 45 minutes later, he's dragging. His toes are killing him on the downhill segments. And his attitude is bad. He wants to quit. But the aid station volunteers abuse him. "You're not quitting! Keep going! We won't let you stop here! Just go to the next station…you'll feel much better!" Abashed, he downs a cup of soup and some energy drink, and shambles off across the highway and off into the darkness. I'm really, really proud of him, because I know he's running on willpower now.

Meg and I blast off for Gap Creek--she leaves in a hurry because she's afraid she might miss Tim. This station is going to be a bit harder to locate because the directions are all about mileage and my odometer stopped rolling in 1993. Several times along the way I pass campsites that could be the aid station, but there don't seem to be enough cars, so I keep going. I begin to pass runners--a couple of whom have seriously rubber legs--so I know I haven't missed it. At last I see what can only be the aid station--Christmas lights strung from the trees and Santana blaring from a stereo somewhere off to the right. It's almost midnight and I'm beat, but Pat's counting on me, so I grab my lawn chair, my coffee thermos, and a novel, and head down the trail to the station.

This station seriously outclasses all the others. In addition to the lights and music, they've got a microwave, they're making Quesadillas to order, and their canopy tent is more suited to a wedding than a backwoods trail run. And, the cook has three plastic flowers growing out of her hair. Meg is there, but is leaving because she missed Tim. He's picking up speed as the run progresses. So, I plop down in my chair, don my headlamp, pour a cup of coffee and read for a while. It's at times like this that I wish I hadn't switched to decaf.

The runners coming in no longer look quite so perky. Many stagger into chairs and beg for help with their feet. Some need blankets and at least one guy looks like he needs a doctor. Fortunately, the volunteers are very perky and one woman is offering professional duct taping and blister lancing. Between her ministrations and the Quesadillas, most of the runners buck up and head off into the night. I think the music helps too.

Sunday Morning: Pat finally rolls into the aid station at 1:30 a.m. He's losing one big toenail and the other is well on its way to off. But the next segment is a short 2.8 miles, so we re-tape his toes, get some hot food into him, and he's off again following the trail of fading chem-lights.

I agree to take one of the runners who's dropped out on to the next station to see if he can get a ride back to his car in Front Royal. It seems he's pulled a groin muscle, because he can hardly walk. In the car on the way up to Moreland Gap, I tell him he should be proud of himself. After all, he's managed to run 65 miles in demanding conditions. He agrees and stuns me by saying that he's especially happy with his run, given that the MMT 100 is his first competitive race--not even a 5K. I consider suggesting a therapist when he gets home, but restrain myself. I also notice that he's carrying his Visitor's Rock. Didn't they give those out at the Visitor's Center? I hope to God he hasn't been running for the past several hours with a two pound rock.

I arrive at Moreland Gap about 2:45 and chat with the volunteers for a bit. Shortly after I get there, the Australian comes in asking for coffee. When they pour him a cup, he reaches into his backpack and pulls out a 10-ounce water bottle filled with cream--which by now is mostly butter, the result of having been churned in his pack for the past 22 hours. He squeezes out a big glop, stirs it into his cup, chugs it and hits the trail.

Pat arrives at 3:15 and he's done. His feet just won't take him much farther, and the cut off time of 7:00 a.m. at Edinbug Gap is too short. Knowing he'll never make it on his damaged feet, he resigns himself to "visitor" status and calls it a night at 67.7 miles and just over 22 hours of running. It's a very odd sport where you can accomplish what he has and feel like a failure.

I pile him into my car and return to my parents' cabin south of Luray around 4:00 a.m. We flop into bed and manage to sleep until late morning, when it's time to head back to Front Royal to collect his Visitor's Rock.

Sunday Afternoon: Back at the Ranch, it's great to get to see a couple of people finish who I've watched all day and night. The looks on their faces are worth the entire experience (and are almost enough to make me want to try this sport). Tim has been done for more than an hour and is feeling good. You'd never know he'd just run 101.8 miles. Meg is whipped and is asleep in a chair on the porch of the Ranch.

Before we go, I step to the finish line and shout to get everyone's attention. Raising my camera, I call out, "Repeat after me…We are pyschos!" Everyone laughs and I get a pretty good picture.

Count me a psycho too, because I'm already signed up as a volunteer for next year.

That is, unless I enter the race myself…

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